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Thai Court Dismisses Case Against British Rights Activist


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A Thai court dismissed a defamation charge against a British activist Wednesday in a case linked to a report he co-authored alleging severe labour abuses in Thailand's food industry, a key supplier to Western supermarkets.


Andy Hall, 34, had faced up to a year in jail if convicted of defamation -- a criminal offence in Thailand -- after Thai fruit processing giant Natural Fruit made the complaint against him.


Hall’s report investigating working conditions at a Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand levelled accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours.


It also redoubled attention on Thailand’s food industry which has in recent months faced a cascade of allegations of mistreatment of its mainly migrant labour force.


A judge at the Bangkok court said the police probe, which stemmed from an interview with television network Al-Jazeera, was flawed as it did not involve a Thai state prosecutor from the start.


Delivering her ruling, the unnamed judge described the investigation as "unlawful" and said "the plaintiff has no legal right to file a complaint... so the court dismisses the case."


Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, has denied the allegations in Hall’s report.


But Hall stands by his research and has accused the company of trying to distract from the report’s damning findings through legal action.


- ’A real victory’ -


Beaming and shaking hands with supporters who had gathered outside the court, Hall hailed the ruling as "a real victory for migrant workers."


"The workers who have fought with me now have much more faith in the system," he told reporters.


The case related to an Hall’s interview with Al-Jazeera over his 2013 report for Finnish rights watchdog Finnwatch called "Cheap Has a High Price".


More serious charges await under the computer crime act -- which carry up to seven years in jail for each count -- and are due to be heard in November.


The fruit processor is also seeking $10 million through a civil suit.


After the ruling, Finnwatch called for the remaining cases against the British activist to be dropped and urged Thai authorities to turn their focus on legal action against companies who "are violating labour rights".


Prominent European food firms have also called for the charges to be dropped, while rights groups have criticised the defamation proceedings from a Thai food industry that has faced a slew of bad headlines over recent months.


Accounts have circulated of abuse -- particularly inside the fishing industry -- of illegal immigrants held captive and forced into unpaid labour, sometimes on boats at sea for years on end without receiving any payment for their work.


Thailand has long turned to migrants from poorer neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to help keep major Thai industries afloat, from seafood to construction.


But they often lack official work permits -- despite a recent drive to regularise migrant labour -- and are paid below the minimum wage.


In June the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking in a report on human trafficking, highlighting abuses in the fisheries industry among others.


Thailand’s food export industry has since been at pains to burnish its image, aware of the mounting pressure on its global buyers.


This week, the fishing industry -- which accounts for 40 per cent of Thai exports of food products -- was heavily represented at a major trade fair near Paris.


Thai Foreign Ministry officials also told delegates that the kingdom is tackling its labour issues, despite heavy criticism that rights abuses are still going unpunished.




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